With his first season of coaching the Creston Valley Thunder Cats under his belt, head coach and general manager Jeff Dubois is pleased with the team’s performance — and he couldn’t be happier with residents’ support.
“This is a community that makes players feel right at home,” said Dubois, who came to Creston after two years coaching Castlegar’s Selkirk College Saints.
And the players, most of whom are from out of town, do their best to fit in, volunteering at schools and helping seniors through the Snow Cats program. They even shaved their heads to raise funds for the family of Isobel “Izzy” Nixon, a seven-year-old who has been having a brain tumour treated in Alberta.
“Winning games is always fun, but you want to do it with a group of guys who have character and care about the community,” said Dubois.
Overall, he said, the season was a good one, with a 28-18-1 record leading to the team’s most recent action in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs, in which they lost the first round to the Kimberley Dynamiters in game five of a possible seven-game series.
Kimberley (currently in the conference finals against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks) was one of only six teams ahead of the Thunder Cats in the standings by the season’s end, so Dubois had his team play a defensive series rather than a “run and gun” style.
“We went into the series knowing it was going to take a complete effort to defeat them,” he said.
The team followed the systems set out by the coaching staff, allowing only eight goals in five games, and making their only playoff win with the use of special teams.
Special teams were a large part of Creston’s strategy over the year, with the team 13th in the league for power plays and penalty kills during this season’s home games, making good on their goal to be tough to beat at home.
“You want to reward people taking the time to come to the rink and cheer you on,” Dubois said.
Overall, he said, the season was a success, getting off to a slow start in September and October by losing their first three home games.
“We came into the year with only a handful of guys back from the last year. … We made a couple of moves to beef up our offense and started to take off in November and December,” he said.
December and January saw some big moves, with the Thunder Cats beating some of the higher-ranked teams, including the Dynamiters and Fernie Ghostriders in the Eddie Mountain Division, and the league-leading Osoyoos Coyotes.
A handful of the players involved in those successes won’t be around to play next season. Goaltender Brock Lefebvre is moving on to the BC Hockey League, and Tyler Podgorenko, who started the season on a Saskatchewan Junior A team, will likely move back up to that level. Dubois expects defenceman Maverick Lynes to move up, as well.
The team’s four 20-year-olds are moving on, as well, advancing to the university and college level. Marcel Fuchs signed with the Selkirk College Saints a few weeks ago, Connor Kidd will attend Kentucky’s Decker College and Connor Ward is still deciding where to go.
Kyle Richter is heading to the University of Central Oklahoma, where three former Thunder Cats — Brandon Formosa, Andrew Hodder and Trevor LeBlanc — played for the UCO Broncos this season and won the men’s Division 1 national championship on March 10.
At the Thunder Cats’ annual awards banquet, Carson Cartwright earned awards as MVP, fan favourite and most game stars He was also sixth in the KIJHL in goals and points.
“He’s probably the guy that took the biggest step forward,” said Dubois.
Cartwright spent the season on a line with Richter and Alec Wilkinson, who was fourth in the league in assists, even though he missed the first quarter of the season.
“They’re a pretty exciting team to watch,” Dubois said. “That gives two guys to build on offensively.”
And while players who are moving on and up will be missed, the Creston and District Community Complex sells itself, making it easier to fill empty spots on the roster.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys come in and see the facility without wanting to play here,” Dubois said. “When you lose top players, you don’t have a hard time recruiting.”